CAROUSEL REVIEWS

PENCIL Paints A Picture of Innocence and Joy In Childhood Friendships

26 August 2019

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PENCIL Paints A Picture of Innocence and Joy In Childhood Friendships

Joanne and Wen Xin are best friends who do everything together, until an incident tests the strength of their friendship.

Director: Gina Tan

Cast: Lisa Yamada, Isabel Yamada

Year: 2018

Country: Singapore

Language: Mandarin Chinese, English

Runtime: 15 mins


In primary school, friendships are everything; they are what you look forward to when you make your way to class, and the thought of being able to play with your friends during recess or after school is what gets you through the numerous gruelling lessons of the day. Back in those days, friends are your whole world — and this is made abundantly clear in Pencil.

Joanna Lee (Isabel Yamada) and Tan Wen Xin (Lisa Yamada) do everything together, be it heading to school at dawn or staying back in the classroom during recess to finish up their homework. They’re the central figures of each other’s lives, and when Wen Xin does something that inexplicably results in Joanna giving her the cold shoulder, it seems like her whole world has fallen.

This is all too familiar. Primary school runs almost like a microcosm of the real world, and small rejections feel monumentally big in a small child’s perspective. Wen Xin’s dejection is especially evident as she heads to school alone and has a lonely lunch during recess, as compared to the film’s introduction whereby the two girls, energetic and spirited, chase after one another while rushing to make it to school. 

Despite this, Pencil is not simply about friendship; it also touches upon power dynamics in young children’s lives, from a primary school context. Prefects are seen as responsible, dutiful kids in the adult’s perspective, but they can also be greedy and corrupt, elitist with a holier-than-thou attitude; and they, just like adults, can get drunk on the power of their authority. 

The relationship between Joanne and Wen Xin is also not as straightforward as it seems. It’s easy to peg Joanne as the ‘naughty’ student who frequently copies answers off of her best friend while assuming that Wen Xin is the ‘good’ student who accommodates to her friend’s antics. Perhaps because these two characters are portrayed by two actors who are sisters in real life, their natural, realistic interactions are played with ease, and it is easy to believe that these characters, despite having such distinct personalities, are actual best friends in the context of the film.

However, Joanne is not just the ‘naughty’ student who uses her friend as an answer sheet; she genuinely cares for Wen Xin, and would do anything to protect her best friend and keep her out of trouble. Wen Xin, on the other hand, isn’t simply a ‘good’ student who only knows how to meekly follow behind her friend’s footsteps; she has a strong sense of justice, and is unafraid to stand up for herself. 

The entire design of Pencil, from the setting to its colours, evokes a sense of nostalgia. Standing up to greet your teachers is a hallmark of formal education in Singapore, as well as the general fear of prefects lurking around to catch you in your misdeeds. The colours, slightly faded, seem reminiscent of an old film as well, which provides a certain sentimental value to the past that the film depicts. 

Simple, understated, yet strikingly nostalgic and subtly subversive, Pencil weaves a story about the simple friendship between two best friends. 

Pencil has been selected to take part in the SeaShorts Competition at the 2019 SeaShorts Film Festival, which will be held in Malacca from 25 – 29 September 2019. You can catch Pencil at the festival, along with many other excellent Southeast Asian films, by registering for a pass via Peatix.


About SeaShorts Film Festival

SeaShorts is an annual celebration of Southeast Asian short film featuring film screenings, forums, workshops, exhibitions, and music performances by filmmakers. Its inaugural edition was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2017. 

Across its past two editions, over 1500 filmmakers and cinephiles from the region came together to watch, indulge and celebrate the complex buffet of ASEAN stories, as well as learn about the latest independent filmmaking techniques through film screenings, forums, masterclasses, and workshops.

Visit their Facebook page for more information. 

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